Saudi Arabia’s medieval legal system has added a new outrage to its record: On Sunday, Saudi lawyer and reform advocate Waleed Abulkhair was sentenced on Sunday to 15 years in prison and a 15-year travel ban (to start after his release). He was also ordered to pay 200,000 Saudi riyals ($53,000). His offense? “inciting public opinion against the government” and “insulting the country’s leaders and judiciary.” The sentence once again raises the question over our level of support for Saudi Arabia and its distinction from our distinction with other countries viewed as extreme and inimical to the rule of law. Abulkhair is the head of the “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia” organization and was ranked by Forbes magazine as one of Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.
Abulkhair attracted the ire of the Kingdom by calling for reforms such as release of political prisoners and the expansion of women’s rights. He was tried in Specialized Criminal Court used for trying accused terrorists.
The Saudi prosecutors cannot get enough of hammering Abulkhair. This is the second sentencing this year. In February, he was sentenced to three months in prison for signing statements critical of the Saudi government and of Saudi officials.
As we discussed, in May,Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes by a Saudi court for insulting Islam. That outrageous sentence followed the sentencing a month earlier of Fadhil al-Manasif to 15 years and a 15-year travel ban for “breaking allegiance with the King” and “harming the reputation of Saudi Arabia by speaking with foreign news agencies.” The prior years, leading reformers Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid were each sentenced for operating “unlicensed human rights organizations” and spreading false information and given 10 years in prison and a five-year travel ban. The travel bans are an interesting twist to not only jail reformers and civil libertarians but then prevent them from interacting with the outside world.
This grotesque list of abuses only reaffirms the widely held view of Saudi legal system as a Sharia-based, government-controlled mockery of justice. The only redeeming factor is that the Kingdom still produces this type of courageous and selfless hero — willing to face long criminal sentences to fight for rights that most of the world takes for granted. As for being sentenced for “insulting the country’s . . . judiciary,” that is a standard that would lead to mass incarcerations given a level of universal contempt for the Saudi courts.